Over the course of his 90-minute one-man show, Avi Hofmann never reveals why he feels the need to remind his audience that he’s still Jewish. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could forget.
The 55-year-old’s “Avi Hoffman: Still Jewish After All These Years” is an extended showcase of the undeniable Jewishness of his career, from his beginnings in Yiddish theater to his invitation to audition for the role of “Benjamin the shlubby Jew” on “Law & Order.” With help from a multimedia slide show, Hoffman recounts his 40-year performance career. “I have every photograph, every program, every article and every review of everything I’ve ever done since I was 4 years old,” Hoffman told SouthFlorida.com (the show originated, appropriately, in Boca Raton). Over 90 minutes, he has time to display a large swath of his collection.
The show is an unapologetic nostalgia trip, larded like Bubbie’s chicken soup with plenty of schmaltz. Accompanied by the piano stylings of Michael Larsen, Hoffman faces the audience with the gravitas and ease of a veteran showman, working the cramped quarters of the Triad Theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side like a comedian from the Borscht Belt (the show also features a memorable Jackie Mason impression).
When he mentions working with Yiddish masters like Molly Picon or the legendary theater producer Joe Papp, the theater filled with appreciative sighs. It was a very Yiddish crowd on Monday night, and included Hoffman’s mother, who has written a weekly column in the Yiddish Forward for 30 years.
“Still Jewish” hits some odd notes over its 90 minutes; during a medley of songs from Hoffman’s favorite Jewish rockers — Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Billy Joel — Hoffman performs the unlikely feat of transposing “Mrs. Robinson” into a rousing musical-theater ballad, warbling the “whoa whoa whoas” in a saucy vibrato that would no doubt make Simon smack his head into the nearest wall. And when describing a Japanese-language production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Hoffman gesticulates like a kung fu master and utters a series of (karate-inspired?) yelps that veer dangerously into racist caricature territory.
Many of Hoffman’s jokes have the quality of shopworn standards. Though the room filled with appreciative laughter, one got the sense that the audience was laughing in recognition of punch lines they’d heard again and again.
Midway through the show, Hoffman faced the audience, sat on the stage and sang low into the microphone. It was his favorite Billy Joel ballad: “Don’t Go Changing.”
This seemed surprisingly apt for a show pitched to please an audience looking for a trip down memory lane, or whatever that particular avenue was called in the Jewish Bronx of the 1950s. For those of a certain age, the show is delicious for its familiarity, like the taste of your 40,000th kosher dill pickle. “Still Jewish” is sometimes sweet, sometimes sour — but rarely, if ever, surprising.